Q&A; with Laurie Graham

Q. How did someone from the Midlands end up writing such an American book?

A. I'm married to an American so I guess that has changed my perspective on the subjects I can write about. The idea for the book actually came from my mother-in-law, who found some old high-school yearbooks from the '50s when she was clearing out a closet. There was a photograph that really caught my eye of the Future Homemakers of America. This was a real organisation in high schools, paired with the Future Farmers of America. Traditionally a Future Homemaker would marry a Future Farmer and live happily ever after. It was very affecting to look at these girls in their bobby socks and wonder what had happened to them. I think it is eternally fascinating to look at groups of people who at one point have a lot in common and then go in different directions. It's my favourite kind of story.

Q. There's still a very English flavour to the book, as the first part is set on an American airforce base in Norfolk.

A. I wanted to have a strong English thread to the story, and bringing the American girls over here as part of the armed forces was the obvious way to do it. That whole thing about military wives is an interesting subject. Their status is still quite old-fashioned. She must be a homemaker and has very little scope for working and doing her own thing. Of course it is changing now and we do have military husbands married to high-ranking women in the armed forces. But I decided to make it the American airforce and set it in East Anglia, which I know well, to satisfy that need for a thread.

Q. What are you saying about the differences between England and America?

A. I was fascinated by the culture clash between England and America in the 1950s. My first memories are of being a girl in those post-war years when things were really pretty grim. It wasn't like that in America, which was real boom time. When Americans came to any military airbase anywhere in Europe they brought with them their little bit of America. From either side the contrast must have been staggering, especially for these American girls, who might as well have been in Siberia.

Q. Why did you pick Peggy to narrate the story?

A. I don't ever really pick anyone in particular, they pick themselves. I have an idea for a story and if the idea is going to work, then one of the characters steps forward and I hear her voice telling the story. This is what has happened with all the books I've written in the first person. Peggy is, in a way, the least remarkable. She doesn't have any extreme character traits like the others do. It had to be one of the American girls and she just stepped up and she did it.

Q. Why do the East Anglians, Kath and John Pharaoh, hold such fascination for the American women?

A. At the outset they have a protective instinct for Kath, who is quite childlike and has nothing. Americans are often appalled at what people don't have, so I can imagine that Kath could become quite a project for them. I hope, too, that there's something in her personality that made them care about what happened to her. One or two people have suggested that the way Kath was living was barely credible, but when I was growing up I was taken by my grandparents into the Lincolnshire countryside and there were people who really were living like that. When I was in my 20s and having children I was living in pretty basic, rustic squalor and that's less than 30 years ago - so my life too has moved on and changed. It interests me whether people stay stuck or move on and get out, which Kath obviously does.

Q. Why does the friendship between the women survive over so many years?

A. What often happens with groups of women is that the friendship may be maintained but in quite a flimsy way. There are times when people are very close and times when certain figures could drop out of circulation. There's often one person in that group who is at the centre of the web and keeps it all together by being the main contact point for everyone. Also there's a weird ebb and flow when you don't hear from a friend for years and years and you think, 'That's it.' But then circumstances bring you back in touch and you can grow close again. I hope the book reflects that, as characters do disappear for a bit and then come back into view.

Q. What are you saying in general about women's friendships?

A. There is something very easy about women's friendships that you don't see as often with men. We all know examples of this, when women will just call each other up or drop a line not with anything specific to say. Men tend to be more specific about getting in touch, Women, in a very casual way, do something very powerful by keeping in touch with each other.

Q. Is Kirk's illness and death a way of punishing Lois's infidelity?

A. That's too moralistic. The really awful thing about Huntingdon's is that by the time people discover they have it, they are very likely to have produced children. That is changing now, but at the time of the story it was impossible to predict genetically. In a way Lois has designed her own hell because she is the one who wants her freedom, and she has a son who will need nursing for the rest of his life. Her husband forgives her, and if he does then I think we have to.

Q. None of the women has a particularly happy time of it. Isn't this a rather gloomy view of life?

A. I think they are terrifically tough in the way they survive and I don't think it's that grim. To me it's just a very normal picture of half-a-dozen women and their ups and downs. To me, the overall feel of the book is not pessimistic.

Q. The book covers a period of great change. What is it saying about the changing role of women?

A. It's unrecognisable from the expectations of those homemakers of 1952. Every one of my characters has to earn a living. Most of them at some point are alone and raising children. They do things they never dreamed of, and this becomes completely the norm. The last one to abandon the old way of life is Audrey, whose husband rises to the top ranks - but even she finds herself leading an unrecognisable life in her 50s. So what the book is saying is simply that: to be homemakers is nowhere near enough these days, whereas for my mother's generation it almost could have been. Not only have our expectations changed, but what the world throws at us has changed. Now it's virtually impossible to survive economically without working, and it is a fact that marriages don't work in the way they used to.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now